COMMISSIONER, NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS
For CreateNYC, we embarked on a remarkable journey. Our planning process has consisted of developing ideas through an intensive listening process. By its nature, we were seeking to identify and solve problems. But along the way we also heard a lot about the incredible vitality, depth, and breadth of the cultural sector. Much of this plan will focus on what needs to change and set parameters on how that change can take place. We will get to that very soon. But it makes sense to start with a clear reference to what is working.
New York City’s cultural world gives us a tremendous amount to celebrate. Millions of New Yorkers engage with arts and culture in every neighborhood in the city. The city boasts a multi-billion-dollar cultural sector that is a magnet for talent and visitors from across the globe, fueling the economy. Arts and culture are also central to healthy, thriving communities in all five boroughs. Some of this strength has been developed through prolonged government and philanthropic support. But other cultural groups have emerged from the grassroots level, driven by community needs, entrepreneurial spirit, and simple love for what they do. Some artists thrive through the support of well-funded galleries, museums, concert halls, theaters, or dance companies. Others survive in informal spaces or in collectives with disparate streams of self-generated income. New Yorkers can experience nature in well-tended botanical gardens, and then return home to create their own green experience in community gardens. Members of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) bring scientific research and experiential learning on a grand scale, connecting with millions of students citywide.
People marvel at the scale of New York’s cultural world—the museums, concert halls, zoos, gardens, theaters, clubs, festivals, and public art reach into every corner of the city. Private sector support is tremendous, with a vibrant sphere of individual philanthropy and foundations headquartered in New York City. And our public support is second to none: no city or state arts council in America approaches the scale of New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA). In the United States, only the federal government spends more on culture each year. DCLA’s expense budget far surpasses the investment made by other cities, and it only tells part of the story. Our capital investment in the cultural sector is also tremendous, serving over 200 groups with hundreds of millions in support. DCLA’s competitive grant-making program awards tens of millions of dollars through a peer panel process each year, reaching hundreds of organizations across all five boroughs. Along with the City Council, we have just laid the groundwork to double the size of our Percent for Art program, bringing world class permanent art installations to public spaces around the city.
New Yorkers can be very proud of the achievements we’ve made in the cultural realm alongside colleagues throughout the de Blasio Administration. We’ve launched a diversity, equity, and inclusion effort to promote a cultural workforce that better reflects the changing demographics of the city. We’ve opened doors to cultural organizations for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers across the city by incorporating a cultural benefit into the wildly popular IDNYC municipal identification card. We’ve brought artists into City government to bring creative practice to bear on thorny civic issues. We’ve expanded the understanding of culture’s value beyond its undeniable economic value to the incredible benefits it has for our communities and social fabric. We’ve launched an effort to build affordable housing and workspace for artists, so they can continue to live and work here. And all this has coincided with the largest budgets in the history of the Department of Cultural Affairs, allowing us to support organizations large and small that serve New Yorkers in all five boroughs.
Local Government Support for Culture
The City’s investment in arts and culture stretches beyond DCLA. Our library systems serve neighborhoods throughout all five boroughs, and increasingly serve as community hubs for cultural engagement. Our city is home to world-renowned colleges and universities, including the City University of New York, a powerful engine for social mobility. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) runs by far the largest school system in the country, and invests hundreds of millions of dollars in arts and science education each year. There has been tremendous progress in this area in the last three years with 310 new full-time certified arts teachers in our schools and increased funding for arts education under the current Administration. Inter-agency collaborations like Materials for the Arts (DOE, DCLA, Department of Sanitation) and SU-CASA creative aging program (City Council, DCLA, Department for the Aging) increase support for culture even further and integrate the arts into other essential City services.
And the political support for arts and culture is solid, consistent, and enthusiastic from our partners in the City Council. From the very inception of CreateNYC, the City Council has been intimately involved. In addition to supporting DCLA and the CreateNYC planning process, the City Council has continued to invest funding in an array of cultural initiatives in every corner of New York City. These include Cultural Afterschool Adventures (CASA) for public school students; SU-CASA, the nation’s largest creative aging program; the Cultural Immigrant Initiative; and Coalition of Theatres of Color. Together, this substantial investment helps bring public support to programming in underserved communities throughout the city.
Where there’s work to be done
Despite all of the extraordinary facets of our city’s cultural realm, it is impossible to deny major shortfalls and areas where we could do better in making sure that all New Yorkers can access the transformative benefits of culture. At the center of this issue lies the fact that certain communities have more cultural funding and resources than others. These inequities often skew along lines of race and class. And we have heard loud and clear from the disability arts community about persistent barriers to participation and careers in the arts. This goes beyond physical access to other forms of accessibility—particularly for artists with disabilities.
Strike up a conversation with any New Yorker—as we have many tens of thousands of times in the last several months—and there are several key themes that tend to emerge. A huge amount of the feedback we received from New Yorkers could be boiled down to two issues: the financial challenges of living and working here, and barriers to physical access via transportation and other means. And the flip side of the cost of living here is how much people are making. The compensation for creative New Yorkers varies widely: there are excellent union jobs for some and poorly compensated part-time work for others. Addressing pay equity was one of the most important issues for the retention of our creative workforce.
Another major theme of our discussions was the geographic divides in terms of cultural assets and participation. There’s a north-south division in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and a sense in Queens that the cultural resources cluster along the 7 train corridor. As it becomes more difficult for moderate- and low-income New Yorkers to live near the center, transportation and geographic divides come to the surface. The cultural plan is not a housing plan or transportation plan, but these crucial factors must provide the context for our plan to succeed.
Yes, there is a lot to celebrate. But if the cultural sector is to continue to thrive, thoughtful change is in order.
CreateNYC plots the direction in which the City will move so that our cultural life grows in a manner that is sustainable, resilient, and equitable for all New Yorkers. As we begin to refine our plans in the short-term, we will do several things on a regular basis. We will regularly share updates on progress made toward the goals laid out in CreateNYC and highlight the achievements of our partners throughout the cultural sector.
We will also continue the practice (launched as part of CreateNYC public engagement) of setting aside regular opportunities for the public to speak directly to the agency. The “CreateNYC Office Hours with the Commissioner,” as we called these, demonstrated for us how eager New Yorkers are to engage in meaningful dialogue around cultural issues most important to them, and they led to some of the most eye opening interactions we had during public engagement. They even helped to launch new coalitions, such as the New York City Artist Coalition, dedicated to advocating for DIY spaces in communities across the city. By continuing these opportunities to speak directly with residents, we hope to ensure that CreateNYC becomes an active reference point for New Yorkers to consider what they want from their government when it comes to supporting culture.
So please consider the proposals contained in CreateNYC carefully. We will waste no time in getting to work with our collaborators on making progress toward these goals, but we also want to hear from you what’s working and what isn’t. The publication of this plan marks the culmination of months of intensive public engagement, but it also signals the beginning of a new conversation. Let’s figure out how we make New York a better place for those who live in it, together.